4. Gaza 2018: The Political Effects

The vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza decided to stay home. Even at the peak, less than 2% of Gazans participated in the war, either as background peaceful demonstrators, back-up harassers or frontline militants. Of those who participated, the vast majority were peaceful protesters. Only 0.1% participated in the front lines, a paltry number given the number of sworn militants in Gaza. And this is in spite of the claims that Hamas paid $14 each to protesters, $100 to families with children and $500 to those injured when they attempted to breach the fence.

As indicated in the two previous blogs, the vast majority of pictures of the demonstration were of the militants hurling stones, burning tires. There are very few pictures of the many more Palestinians who peacefully participated in the demonstration largely in Friday prayers. Instead, almost every picture gallery depicted a disabled protester who had been wheeled towards the Israeli border in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood of Gaza City to enable him to hurl rocks either portrayed from his wheel chair or on the ground. Yet, in spite of this gross pictorial distortion, most references in print that I read were of “peaceful demonstrations.”

Though all of these circumstances reveal the inability of Hamas any longer to arouse the passions of Gazans to make sacrifices, these proportions did help fulfill the cover that the actions were simply peaceful demonstrations. And look at the relatively low cost compared to the three previous wars. In spite of the widespread hysteria about excessive numbers, in over six weeks of conflict only 104-110 died as martyrs, though at least a few of these were innocent civilians. These numbers are small in any international comparison – to Syria, to Turkey’s war on the Kurds, to Afghanistan, to the Rohingya when they were ethnically cleansed from Myanmar, and even within Mexico. In 2017, 25,339 Mexicans were murdered, an average of 487 a week or 5,847 over a six-week period.

Count the number of school children killed in attacks in the United States over the last six weeks. There were 29 mass shootings and 17 other shootings in schools in the United States even before the Parkland Florida massacre at Marjory Stoneman High School on 14 February 2018, bringing the total number of attacks by Valentine’s Day in 2018 to 18, or 3 per week.  In Santa Fe Texas on 20 May 2018, 10 were murdered and this was only the fourth deadliest attack this year. Thus my contention: relatively speaking, especially in the context of war, 110 deaths over six weeks does not seem excessive at all, contrary to the widespread report that the number of casualties were disproportionate. The real issue is whether non-militants were targeted and even just wounded.

The Palestinian leadership made a sincere effort to be honest about the numbers killed as they walked a tightrope between the task of establishing that unwarranted numbers were killed and injured while not enough were martyred to demonstrate a Hamas indifference to Palestinian lives. On the other hand, too many false reports also emerged, such as the one that Israelis killed an 8-month baby with tear gas (the baby died from a pre-existing heart condition).

With the huge gap between the actual numbers killed and maimed compared to other conflict and non-conflict situations, the response to the violence in Gaza seems hysterical. But that was the point of holding a largely peaceful demonstration while small numbers fought in a war as willing martyrs.

There were other successes on the international and domestic stages for Hamas. The distinction between a policy recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and recognizing a united Jerusalem as the capital remained suppressed. The two main emotional issues for the Palestinians were linked – the insistence on Jerusalem as their capital and the return of refugees. The language was bathed in rights rather than on their suffering. The focus was placed on the complicity of the international community in rewarding Israel in untold ways, including allowing an Israeli entertainer, Netta Barzilai, to win the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon that was also being celebrated in Tel Aviv at the same time as the final Nakba Day demonstrations. After all, even Australian Jessica Mauboy, the runner up, acknowledged Barzilai’s enormous power as an entertainer.

That is why Barghouti wrote and published the following:

“On one side there is an occupying power that is incessantly rewarded by the international community, even as the Palestinians are being pushed ever further out of their lands. Those who remain live under the harshest conditions: The denial of a right to live in dignity and freedom. In this age of media and social platforms, there is no excuse to not see what is happening. As such, remaining complicit is a conscious and active decision to side with oppression and directly be a part of it.”

Simply put, the international community is either for us (as Palestinians) or against us in remaining silent and supporting Israel. In the latter case, the international community was complicit in the loss of further Palestinian lands and the terrible conditions under which Gazans lived. Hamas responsibility for those conditions was ignored. The goal of return, so pronounced in the purpose of the demonstrations, was bracketed. The focus was on Palestinians as victims and Israelis as malevolent oppressors.

However, the bottom line among Palestinians, including those in Gaza, was an increased despondency. The vision of return has become a forlorn hope. Even the dream of an independent Palestinian state seems to be receding. That is not only because of the militancy and incompetence of Hamas, but Mahmoud Abbas, now in the twilight of his leadership, did not help with his antisemitic outburst weeks earlier. The international political situation in the Middle East does not help the Palestinians either. Iranian support is feckless. The Turkish economy is imploding. Qatar has its own problems in the Gulf. The Saudis and Egyptians support the Palestinian political goals only nominally as they forge stronger economic, military, intelligence and backroom diplomatic ties with Israel.

When return was mentioned, it was linked simply with the desire to stand up in dignity and not be punished for being displaced. Freedom was contrasted with repression and repression was linked with a long history of colonization. Jews settling in Palestine were but the latest phase of that colonizing effort. Palestinians simply had fought a century-old defensive war. But the international community condemned that defence and rewarded the Zionists.

“Our minds are turned into a space for psychological warfare to implant an image of inferiority into our core, to convince us that we are the lesser ones, destined to be either controlled or kicked out. Our bodies are objects—shot at, beaten, humiliated, assaulted, violated. Our ideas and dreams of liberation are swept into a corner because if we so much as dare to speak loudly and mobilize, we will find ourselves incarcerated or killed. Palestinians are wedged between a painful exile and a butchered land. This is the definition of ethnic cleansing.”

This war was being fought in a way to contrast Israeli strength, inhumanity and oppression with the valiant efforts at improvement of victims under unspeakable conditions. “Palestinians are brave enough to love life so much that they are willing to go out to the streets and protest, and when they are not protesting they are fighting in their daily life by merely echoing the word ‘Palestine’.”

Hamas may have won a short-term public relations victory in the 2018 Gaza conflict, but prospects are even dimmer now of Israel entering into a truce with Hamas. Nor is Israel likely to lift the blockade as readily as Egypt did. Israel will demand deep concessions. The Europeans may make some noise and others may bewail Israel’s use of “excessive” and disproportionate force, but the situation would almost undoubtedly have been worse, both from a public relations standpoint and in actual casualties, if Israel had not been firm in its red lines. Further, look at the political effects of Obama’s failure to stand up to Syria on his red line and the effective impotence of the pitiful one-off responses of Donald Trump to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrians. On the other hand, it would be helpful if Israel at least had the appearance of a positive response to the Gaza martyrdom of its own people.

Red lines have to mean consequences, and heavy consequences, if they are crossed. Indifference to the plight of the Palestinians, however, is not a policy. Israel must repeatedly and loudly offer Gazans rewards if the surrender their objectives of returning to Israel with the aim of Israel’s destruction even if one understands why Israeli leaders might tire of making such offers in a context that seems fruitless.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Advertisement

3. Gaza 2108 – (b) The Air War: Tactics and Casualties

Though after Nakba Day on 15 May, attacks against Israel have continued, they were largely not attempts to breach the fence and kill Israelis; their aim was property destruction. Following the Palestinian relative success with kite fires during the six weeks of direct combat from the time the first flaming kite landed on Kibbutz Nahal Oz on 13 April starting a fire there, Gazans increased and improved their use of white fiery kites with fluffy tails and possibly Molotov cocktails attached to send into Israeli territory. They were intended to set fire to Israeli fields.

One set fire to 70% of the natural habitat and green landscape of the Be’eri Crater Reserve adjacent to the Gaza border located between Kibbutz Alumim and Kibbutz Be’eri a once blooming landscape that served as a nature reserve for wildlife and an outstanding example of making the desert bloom turning most of the reserve into a black biomass with much of the wildlife and the green vegetation speckled with roses destroyed from the “Kite Terror”.

Drones with knives were developed by the Israelis to cut the kite strings. That method destroyed 40 burning or Molotov kites before they reached Israel. A more recent innovation has been the mobilization of drone-racers to send drones, especially Pegasus 120s, to ram the fiery kites. For border communities, the kite war was real terror.

Israel also used kites, but not to land in Gaza. Nor were they burning. Nor did they have Molotov cocktails attached. They were flown very high on 12 May in a demonstration in Sderot in Israel just north of the Gaza border. At the demonstration, MK Miki Zohar (Likud) and Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel (Bayit Hayehudi) gave speeches. Families had picnics. The shofar was sounded loud enough for Gazans to hear. The demonstration was held to let Gazans know that Israelis had not forgotten that Hamas still held the bodies of two dead Israeli soldiers who had been killed during a previous ceasefire; the bodies have been hidden somewhere in Gaza since 2014. Hamas refused to release the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.

Since the incendiary kite war started on 13 April, over 300 fiery kites were sent into Israel. At least 100 fires were started in the Kissufim and Be’eri forests, Kibbutzim Nir Oz, Kerem Shalom, Sufa, Kfar Aza, Sa’ad, Mefalsim, Erez, and Gevim. In spite of the drone counterattack, enough kites got through to land on farmers’ fields and start fires causing millions of shekels in damage, for example, destroying 3,000 acres of wheat.

On 25 and 26 May, six fires were started in Israel using the latest most successful methods causing severe damage to Israeli farmers’ crops. The Israeli Agriculture Minister, Uri Ariel, called for maiming rather than killing those who were preparing or who sent fiery kites into Israel even if they were more than 300 metres from the fence. Shoot them in the legs or knees, he advised.

“We are human beings and they are human beings and we do not shoot in order to kill. I think that in order to deter it is enough to shoot at the legs; it has not yet been tried.” On the contrary, I believe that this response was tried, perhaps not systematically. During the six weeks of the 2018 Gaza War, many Palestinians flew burning kites that landed on Israeli soil and damaged property.

During the six weeks of war, other Palestinians came close enough to the fence to throw stones and sometimes cut the fence. But the vast majority of Gazans who participated over the six weeks stayed largely under cover or behind rises in the land and were more than 300 metres from the fence. However, some young Gazans, overwhelmingly men, under cover of smoke from the burning tires, did approach the fence. Many tried to cut through the fence. Some threw Molotov cocktails and stones. However, unlike the fiery kite fliers, these had to enter the 300 metre no-go zone.

Though the clash was not primarily over the right of Palestinians to demonstrate peacefully or even to use symbolic gestures to indicate their defiance, but over attempts to damage and possibly breach the fence, at one-point, airborne troops landed among demonstrators to attempt to disperse them with tear gas. This tactic appeared to be an aberration. At another point in the early evening of 30 March, tanks and jets bombed Hamas sites in response to live fire. Later, other aerial attacks targeted those who were sending flaming kites or kites with Molotov cocktails.

One figure became a symbol of the militants located across the red line but not among those who tried to breach the fence. Saber al-Ashkar was a disabled protester in a wheelchair in the buffer zone hurling stones with his slingshot while surrounded usually by black smoke from burning tires.

We do not know how the planned sea war will unfold. The organizers of the Great March of Return, hardly an appropriate title for a continuing naval war let alone the air war, announced that they plan to put together a flotilla of boats to break the Israeli blockade. At the same time, this year Israel is planning to build a seawall using fortified rock and barbed wire to strengthen its sea blockade. Though the Palestinians continually focus on Gaza itself as a prison under siege by Israel, except for lifting the closure of the Rafah crossing for Ramadan, the Egyptian entry and exit gate has also been closed off.

Though outright war may be over for the present, what seems evident is that battles will continue to take place from land, sea and air.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

With the help of A

3. Gaza 2108 – (a) The Ground War: Tactics and Casualties

Violence was expected from both sides though the demonstrations were dubbed “peaceful” by the Palestinians. Between the 23rd and the 28th of March, three infiltrators from Gaza had been caught and arrested by the IDF, but it appears that those caught were simply sneaking into Israel to find work; though they had weapons and fence cutters on them, they sought to be and were arrested 12 miles inside Israel. The first clashes took place on 29 March, the day before “Land Day” on 30 March when the first demonstrations were planned and at least 100,000 demonstrators were expected to show up, even though the original goal had been one million. Two Palestinians near the discontinued Karni crossing were captured near the security fence trying to set fire to army engineering equipment.

By 30 March, however, five different tent camps were set up at Rafah and Khan Younis in the south, el-Bureij and Gaza City in the centre, and Jabalya in the northern portion of Gaza. Israel anticipated that as many as 50,000 would demonstrate. Perhaps as many as 30,000 did the first day and 35,000 or even as many as 40,000 on the last day, but the totals never reached 50,000 let alone the target of 100,000 or the imagined one million. On other than the first and last Fridays, the total number of demonstrators and militants numbered about 10,000 each time. Further, the vast majority of those participating kept 300 or more metres from the border and did not engage in violence or attack the fence. They did not cross into the no-go zone pronounced by Israel. (I will deal with those who engaged in an air war in tomorrow’s blog.)

The fact that the overwhelming number of Gazans did not engage militarily or enter the 300 metre no-go zone was true even when, in the fourth week of protests, eight tents in the Malaka zone were moved to 300 metres from the fence. The vast majority of those who stayed 300 metres away or more neither sought martyrdom by attacking the fence nor aimed to harm or kill Israelis.

By and large, the estimates by both sides of those killed seemed to vary little. However, the numbers claimed to be injured varied enormously. 18 Palestinians were killed in the March 30th “demonstrations.” One died 7 days later. For example, two armed Palestinians with AK-47s and hand grenades were shot dead after exchanging fire with Israeli troops. Israel claimed that 7 were Hamas militants, though Hamas confirmed that only 5 were. Others killed included a global jihadist and a member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade accounting for 50% of those killed. Another killed was holding a torch but running away from the fence at the time he was shot and another simply smoking and standing behind stone throwers behind a hillock. Another, Gazans claimed, was a farmer ploughing close to the fence; the IDF said they shot him because they expected that he was planting an explosive device.

During the following week, demonstrations diminished in size. Nevertheless, almost on a daily basis, militants were killed. On the 1st of April and the first day of Passover, 4 Palestinians wearing masks and carrying Molotov cocktails cut through the southern security fence and reached Kibbutz Kissufim where they were captured before they could set fire to equipment used to destroy Hamad tunnels. They were not injured or killed. On the 2nd of April, one Palestinian was killed after setting fire to a tire and rolling it towards the fence. Another was shot on the 3rd who broke open the fence, and another armed Palestinian on 5 April who approached the fence.

A week after the Land Day demonstrations, the Palestinians returned to large demonstrations on 6 April. 9 more Palestinians were killed and scores more, such as 20-year-old Mohammed Ashour, were wounded. One of those shot who died the next day was Yasser Murtaja, a thirty-year-old Palestinian cameraman for Palestinian Aid Media. Murtaja was shot in the southern Gaza town of Khuzaa, but when he was only 100 metres from the fence. He was wearing the flak jacket clearly marked “Press,” but the area was engulfed in black smoke as a result of the burning tires set alight by militants. Further, the IDF claimed that he was a Hamas operative.

A press release issued by the IDF claimed that the Israeli military “does not intentionally target journalists and that it would look into the circumstances of the shooting.” However, those killed were shot in the head or upper body. The indications seemed to be that they were targeted by Israeli snipers to be killed and not just maimed. As an IDF spokesperson tweeted, before he subsequently deleted the tweet, possibly because of inquiries about killing an unarmed Palestinian running away from the fence: “Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed.”

Yasser Murtaja was not the only journalist killed. Ahmed Abu Hussein aged 24 who worked for Gaza’s Al-Shaab radio station, the Voice of the People Radio in Jabalia, also was killed. He was wounded on 13 April and died from his wounds two weeks later in Tel Hashomer Hospital in Israel where he had been transferred when his wounds could not be treated adequately by the Gazan limited medical facilities at the Indonesian Hospital in Jabalia or even the much better hospital in the West Bank, the Palestinian Medical Compound in Ramallah to which he was first transferred. Some reports suggested that he was actually shot by a Hamas operative since he was most likely a member of the even more militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The latter claim – not the one that he was shot by a Hamas member seemed to be substantiated when the PFLP website posted notice of his death and referred to him as a “shaheed” (“shahid”), a martyr to the Islamic faith. Further, Voice of the People is a PFLP radio station. Even though working for a radio station, he allegedly flew drones to gather information for the militants as well as to take pictures of both the militant actions as well as the peaceful demonstrations.

Members of the Palestinian press did wear flack jackets clearly marked “Press.” To get the best pictures, they also went into the Israeli designated no-go zone within 300 metres of the fence. Using drones, they may also have been gathering evidence both on the military positions of the Israelis and for the charges against Israel that they planned to take on the ground.

It is not clear why some were targeted for killing and others targeted only to be injured. Israel’s B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, the Anadolu Agency and Amnesty International all pronounced the use of force with intent to kill excessive and disproportionate to the threat. (See the separate blog on Human Rights in Gaza and Israel.)

According to both sides, under the cover of smoke from burning tires, scores of demonstrators broke away from the main peaceful body and approached the fence in spite of prior warnings by Israel that if they did, they would be met by lethal force. They were. Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar appeared at the main demonstration later and pronounced to cheers that the great move towards the fence to breach the borders was coming so that they all could pray at al-Aqsa Mosque. Hamas repeatedly in the past, and continued during this phase of conflict, to set fire to the Kerem Shalom crossing through which humanitarian supplies enter Gaza.

Large demonstrations took place on 13, 20, 27 April and the 4th and 11th of May. The following figures suggest the scale of the demonstrations, the loss of life and the wounded, the latter including only those hit by live ammunition. Those killed by their own side, such as the four Palestinians who accidently blew themselves up on 14 April, are not included. Those who died during the previous week are included in the Friday totals.

Date            Size           Dead    Wounded              Comments

13 April       10,000          3           223         the dead included 1 journalist                                    20 April       10,000           5          48-90       including a 14-yr.-old                                 27April       10,000           5           174         12 crossed the barbed wire fence & reched the                                                                               electrified fence                                                            4 May          10,000             5             82         the wind blew tear gas on demonstrators               11 May       15,000             4             ?

On 14 May, the Nakba Day Protests, held one day before 15 May to correspond to the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem, the situation changed dramatically. 35,000 demonstrators showed up. As indicated in earlier blogs, 62 were killed, 53 named by Israel as known militants. Perhaps 500 were wounded. Those killed now totalled about 110; the UN reported that 104 had been killed, 2 dozen between the ages of 14-16. One 14-year-old was a girl, Wisal Sheikh Khalil, who was trying to cut through the security fence with wire cutters. Over 1,000 had by then been hit by live ammunition. IDF press releases were contradictory, some claiming that the snipers hit where intended while others said that no shots aimed to kill. The latter claim is simply not credible, but many were killed because the smoke from the tire fires obscured the vision of the snipers.

Both sides used sand berms or earthen embankments, the Palestinians locating them 300 metres beyond the fence and beyond the red line within which Israel promised to use live ammunition. Israeli snipers (about 100), infantry and tanks were located on the Israeli side behind embankments. What is clear is that there were three parts to the Palestinian demonstrations – the vast majority located 500-700 metres from the fence, some delivering medical services. Most journalists were generally located behind the embankments about 300 metres from the fence. A second group, usually young militants across the red line, participated in stone throwing. Third, small groups of militants tried to reach or get through the fence. The latter never exceeded 10% of the total number of demonstrators. But they were sitting ducks for Israeli snipers, despite the smoke given off by burning tires. Martyrdom seemed to be an integral part of the Palestinian protest.

It also seems clear that, although the Israeli armed forces did contain the militants and largely prevented their entry into Israel, and suffered only one soldier wounded, Israel seems also to have significantly lost the war for international public opinion. Some blame this on the public relations ineptitude of the IDF. But the IDF is faced with a dilemma. If journalists are allowed within 2 miles of the fence on the Israeli side, the problem is not that they are at significant personal physical risk, as Israel often insists, but that they gain clear access to the tactics of the Israeli army in countering the Palestinian demonstrations and attacks on the border.

The war did not stop on 14 May. But the demonstrations have. There have been a small number of militant incidents since. For example, on 27 May a bomb was placed next to the fence. Israeli tanks blew up a Palestinian observation post and killed three Gazans in response. However, the main thrust of the war has shifted, not to the sky war, which I will sum up tomorrow, but to a planned sea confrontation.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman